What’s in a Name? – Ask Derek Bermel
A preview, by Marc Shulgold
“I have fun with titles,” admits composer Derek Bermel. Which may explain the quirky name he gave to his work for clarinet and string quartet, A Short History of the Universe. No, it’s not intended as theme music for the Cosmos TV series. “It’s is a jumping off point,” he says of the title. “A point of departure, so I can get my hooks into an idea.”
The respected New York composer’s list of works is dotted with similar attention-grabbing titles, such as Five Funk Studies and Mulatosh Stomp. Bermel will bring those two works, plus the aforementioned Short History, to concerts by the Colorado Chamber Players in May, when he will appear as clarinet soloist and resident composer. He’ll be part of a concert in Denver on Friday, May 9, and at a pair of concerts featuring excerpts of those pieces in Boulder and Lafayette the following day. Also on that Friday night program is another quintet for clarinet and string quartet by some guy named Brahms. Sharing that concert with one of the immortal “Three B’s” doesn’t cause this fourth “B” to blush. “Hey, nothing wrong with being compared to Brahms,” Bermel says.
In case you’re wondering, A Short History of the Universe is not what its title suggests – no big bangs or supernovas will explode. But there is an astrophysics connection, he explains. “Early on, I’d studied some physics. Since then, I’d often been inspired by mathematical or scientific concepts.” Then, came a tenure at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in 2012. While there, the composer attended lectures by the renowned theoretical physicist Nima Arkana-Hamed. Those experiences impacted his thoughts on a chamber piece commissioned by the Virginia-based Wolf Trap Festival. A Short History was the result, receiving its premiere at Wolf Trap in January of last year. “It was an inspiring, stimulating experience,” he recalls of his encounters with Arkana-Hamed. “Nima was pretty excited, hearing the piece. He was quite flattered.”
If you didn’t happen to major in astrophysics in college, fear not – no knowledge of the universe and its origin is required. “For me, titles are just another way of looking at a piece,” Bermel says. “They’re evocative, a reflection of my state of mind.”
It’s no secret that some of Bermel’s music can get pretty thorny for the casual listener. “I create and formalize a language that will have an inherent logic,” he notes, adding, “The abstract nature of art requires an audience to work.” He pauses. “It’s so hard to talk about music.” That evidently holds true for writing about it. Here’s a sample from his program notes for Short History: “By exploring various ways of stretching and compacting, or ‘curving’ musical spacetime, I hope to evince a sort of general relativity for the ears.”
Not to worry. Audience members searching for a path into the Colorado Chamber Players’ upcoming programs would do well to keep things simple as they listen, the composer recommends. “In music, sounds are relative to other sounds. Everything has to do with context. The (musical) materials are abstract, but the language is concrete. I’d be just as happy if a listener walks in and just listens. Really, how a piece is heard is less important to me. I’ve noticed that some people get all wrapped up in the titles. I’d really prefer that an audience responds to music on an emotional level.”
Since we’re talking about an audience’s emotional response, one additional piece on the Friday program is worth mentioning here, due to its powerful message of inspiration. Bermel will perform a solo clarinet work, Rashim, by one of his students who attended the Maine-based Bowdoin Music Festival a few summers back. The composer is Petra Hogan, formerly Petra Anderson. Those who followed the aftermath of the horrific events of the Aurora movie theater shooting in July 2012 may recall that name. Petra was one of 58 people wounded in that attack, receiving a shotgun pellet to the face that penetrated most of her brain – and miraculously did no serious damage. Doctors were astounded by the pellet’s relatively safe journey along a fluid pathway that avoided adjacent areas of the brain.
“Petra had studied with me at Bowdoin in 2011,” Bermel recalls. “She’d completed (Rashim) there, and was going to return the next summer for more studies. But her mother was seriously ill with Stage 4 cancer, so she remained in Colorado.” Her mother, Kim Anderson, passed away just a few weeks following the Aurora shooting. A month before she was wounded, Petra had completed her studies in composition at the University of Pacific’s Conservatory of Music, graduating Magna Cum Laude, along with her longtime boyfriend, clarinetist Austin Hogan (dedicatee of Rashim, written as a graduation gift). The couple wed in Englewood, CO in March of last year, and are both currently pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Maryland.
“It took Petra a little while longer to reclaim her creative abilities,” Bermel says. “But her recovery has been just amazing. I saw her in Denver when I was on my way to California just a few months after she was wounded. She picked me up at the airport, and off we drove. I couldn’t believe it. Best of all, she’s now composing again.”
Derek Bermel will join members of the Colorado Chamber Players in three Front Range performances May 9 and 10. The schedule:
- Friday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m. in St. John’s Cathedral, 1350 S. Washington St. in Denver. Complete works by Bermel, Brahms and Hogan. Tickets are $20 in advance ($15 for students/seniors) or $25 at the door ($18 for students/seniors). For advance sales, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/derek-bermel-genius-of-our-time-tickets-8863335475?aff=eac2
- Saturday, May 10 at 11 a.m. in the Canyon Theater, Boulder Public Library, 1001 Arapahoe Ave. Family program, featuring excerpts of works by Bermel and Brahms. Admission is free.
- Saturday May 10th at 7 p.m., in Opus Two Hall, 9167 Davidson Way, Lafayette. A gala concert and reception. Tickets are $40 in advance, $45 at the door. For advance sales, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/derek-bermel-genius-of-our-time-gala-concert-at-opus-two-hall-tickets-11034884637
- Information on all three programs: www.coloradochamberplayers.org